Toolmaker Talk: Mike Lee (MyFitnessPal)
February 15, 2012
At a QS Meetup in San Francisco about a year ago, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in over 15 years. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that he had quietly built one of the most widely used weight loss tools: MyFitnessPal (with 170,000 ratings on the AppStore, mostly 5s!). Mike Lee explains the focus, passion and patience it has taken to do this.
Q: How do you describe MyFitnessPal? What is it?
Lee: MyFitnessPal is a calorie counter that allows you to easily track your diet and exercise to learn more about what you are eating and how many calories you are consuming and burning. We have a website as well as mobile apps on every major platform, all of which seamlessly sync with one another so you can log at your computer or on your phone, whichever is most convenient. We also provide a variety of social networking tools so that you can easily motivate and receive support from friends and family, as well as stay informed of each other’s progress.
Q: What’s the back story? What led to it?
Lee: In 2005 my wife and I wanted to lose weight before our wedding. We went to see a trainer at 24 Hour Fitness, and he suggested that we count calories. He gave us a small book that had calorie counts for about 3,000 foods in it, and told us to write down everything that we ate. Being a tech guy, there was no way I was going to do this on paper, so I immediately threw the book away and looked for an online solution. There were already tons of online calorie counters available — I probably tried at least 15 myself — but to my amazement, none of them worked the way I thought they should work. They were all incredibly hard to use; I actually found it easier to track on paper than online. I was looking for a new project to work on, so I decided to write my own calorie counter — that’s how MyFitnessPal was born.
Soon my brother joined me. We’ve kept the team very small, while slowly building up a loyal following. We passed a million users a few years ago, and are still growing very rapidly.
Q: What impact has it had? What have you heard from users?
Lee: One of the best parts about working at MyFitnessPal is the messages we get from our users. I’d estimate that anywhere from 30-50% of the emails that we get are from people simply telling us how much they love the app, and how much it’s helped them lead a healthier life. People write in telling us that they’ve been trying to lose weight for 20 years, but nothing had worked until they tried MyFitnessPal. We hear from people who’ve been able to cancel surgeries, stop taking medications, fit into jeans they haven’t worn in years, or even things as simple as just being able to stand up without using their arms to push themselves up. We have thousands and thousands of members who’ve lost 100 pounds or more. We’ve even had people get married after meeting on MyFitnessPal.
It’s hard to generalize users’ experiences because we have so many users. And they vary widely: there are people who’ve never exercised, who would find a 15 minute walk difficult, and we have professional body builders.
Still, one thing stands out, which is that the biggest benefit is education. It’s amazing how little most people know about what they eat or the activities they perform, and once they start using the app, it’s eye-opening. They discover what they eat, how much, how often, the nutritional content of the food, and the impact of physical activity. They build up knowledge that stays with them even if they stop logging their foods. With this knowledge they can make their own decisions about what to change in their lives, what trade-offs are best for them. It’s not following some diet fad, but discovering what works for you.
Q: What makes it different, sets it apart?
Lee: We really pay little attention to other apps or the media. Rather we’re fanatically focused on our own users. We listen deeply to user feedback, but we don’t just do what they ask for. Instead we try to understand their real problem, and focus our work on the things that we’ve discovered really matter for losing weight.
We know losing weight is really hard and that tracking is a pain-in-the-neck. So, we really work hard to make our site and our app as easy to use as possible. We know that the easier and faster we can make logging your foods, the more likely you are to stick with it, and consequently, the more likely you are to reach your goals. As a tool maker, it’s our job to help make that process as easy as possible and remove every barrier we can to your success. I can’t really point to anything in particular about ease-of-use; it’s just something we focus on relentlessly and something that the team is just good at.
Q: What are you doing next? How do you see MyFitnessPal evolving?
Lee: Over the past year, we’ve worked hard on expanding the number of platforms on which MyFItnessPal is available. We’ve released apps for Blackberry, Windows Phone 7, and iPad. Though they are similar, the interfaces are tailored for each platform. Now that we’re available on most major platforms, we’ll be spending more time on improving our core logging tools. We’ve got a ton of ideas on how we can make calorie counting even faster and easier, so hopefully you’ll be seeing a lot of improvements in that area from us in 2012.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
Lee: If you’d like to keep up to date on the latest happenings on MyFitnessPal, you can like us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/myfitnesspal or follow us on Twitter at http://twitter.com/myfitnesspal.
Platform: web, iPhone, iPad, Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone 7
This is the 10th post in the “Toolmaker Talks” series. The QS blog features intrepid self-quantifiers and their stories: what did they do? how did they do it? and what have they learned? In Toolmaker Talks we hear from QS enablers, those observing this QS activity and developing self-quantifying tools: what needs have they observed? what tools have they developed in response? and what have they learned from users’ experiences? If you are a “toolmaker” and want to participate in this series, contact Rajiv Mehta at firstname.lastname@example.org.